When I arrived in Fort Collins 15 years ago, I started buying vintage photographs and postcards of our area. I began to notice, in the street images, how quickly Fort Collins changed from a horse and buggy to an automobile town. As you’ll see from these images of the College and Mountain Avenue intersection, the town changed blazingly fast.

Fort Collins’ first automobile was purchased by County Judge J. Mack Mills. It was a 1902 Curved Dash Oldsmobile that he purchased in Denver and drove to Fort Collins, with an overnight stop in Berthoud. Years afterwards, Mills daughter Freda wrote about his arrival at their home at 702 South College Avenue:

“It had rained all night the night before so that the mud was about a foot deep in places. About dusk, we looked out the window and saw in our driveway what looked like a mud statue of a man sitting in an automobile. He was as proud as a peacock.”

It was Friday, June 27, 1902. Fort Collins’ first car was home.

It would take over a year for the next two cars to be bought by Fort Collins residents, both Curved Dash Oldsmobiles and both bought by doctors – Dr William A. Kickland and Dr, S. T. Quick. So, it isn’t surprising that there isn’t an automobile in sight in the photograph shown below from around 1904.

01 College and Mountain c1905 B640
Intersection of College and Mountain Avenues, c. 1904

Looking northeast across the intersection of College and Mountain Avenues, the photograph shows a sleepy town, with a horse team watering in the center of one of the busiest intersections in the city. Two years after Mills arrived with the town’s first automobile, Fort Collins was still a horse and buggy town, but then cars began to arrive more quickly. Here is the same intersection circa 1910, when around 140 cars were registered with the city clerk.

02 College Mountain c1910 Full B640
Intersection of College and Mountain Avenues, c. 1910

The most obvious change in town is the arrival of the trolley system. I wrote about the 1907 arrival of the streetcars in an earlier post, “The Denver & Interurban Railway Corporation Streetcars in Fort Collins, Colorado.” But, an automobile is also in the scene as you can see in this enlargement.

03 College Mountain c1910 Med B640
Left Side Enlargement, Intersection of College and Mountain Avenues, c. 1910

While the car isn’t perfectly sharp in the image, some automobile experts have dated it to around 1910, one expert even going further and speculating that it is an EMF Model 30 Touring Car. EMF was a short-lived Detroit automobile company that produced cars from 1909 to 1912, before being taken over by Studebaker. The single automobile in the photograph is still outnumbered by the many horse and buggies parked to the left of it.

The next few years brought changes both to the automobile industry and to Fort Collins. In the automobile business, Henry Ford started producing his Model T, fulfilling a pledge he made in 1908 to “build a motor car for the multitude . . . so low in price that the man of moderate means may own one.” As the number of automobiles grew, Fort Collins responded. In 1916 the town began paving the major streets, horses were banned from downtown, and the hitching posts were removed. Here is an image of the same intersection taken in September 1922, with the precise dating made possible by the movie advertisement on the streetcar.

04 Fort Collins Street Scene Sep 1922 B640
Intersection of College and Mountain Avenues, 1922

Taken just 20 years after the arrival of our first automobile, the streets are now paved and the town is bustling with automobiles. In two decades, the automobile went from a toy for our wealthiest citizens to a necessity of everyday life. Notice, also, that the bigger Interurban streetcars have been replaced by the smaller Birney cars. That happened in 1919.

Let’s jump ahead another 20 years and look at this same intersection, circa 1943.

05 College Mountain c1943 b&w Full B640
Intersection of College and Mountain Avenues, c. 1943

Of course we have newer cars, but really not much else seems to have changed. The Birneys are still running. The buildings that we can compare are the same and the number of cars on the road certainly hasn’t increased. (World War II gas rationing may have had something to do with that.) If you look closely at the left side of the image, you can spot one change – traffic signals have made it to Fort Collins. Below is an enlargement of that section of the image.

06 College Mountain Traffic Signal c1943 B400
Traffic Signal, College and Mountain Avenues, c. 1943

The traffic signal is in the center of the intersection, probably where the watering tank was in the 1904 image. I’ve tried to research the history of traffic signals in Fort Collins, but I failed. I’ve heard that the earliest traffic signals in Fort Collins were some kind of semaphore signal, with stop and go flags. I haven’t been able to confirm that in the local newspapers. I also haven’t been able to find out when the first traffic lights were installed in Fort Collins. If you happen to know, email me at the address shown below or tell all of us by using the Comment box following this post.

You might have noticed that this 1943 image was made by Mark Miller, a long time Fort Collins photographer. Some years ago, I had the chance to interview John Miller, Mark Miller’s son. He told me a story about this image that I thought I’d share with you, even though it is off topic.

Mark Miller loved this photograph. He thought it showed the best parts of our town – the historic buildings, the wide streets, and the trolley system. He thought this photograph should be the one the Chamber of Commerce used to promote the city. According to Mark Miller, a publishing company used the image without his permission to make a printed, colorized postcard, Printed in high volumes, the colored postcard, rather than Miller’s black-and-white real photo postcard, became the more recognized image of downtown Fort Collins. His name was removed from the card, so he received no credit or recognition for the photograph.

Below is the colorized version. It’s interesting to compare the two postcards to see the changes and simplifications that the publishing company chose to make in their printed versions, long before Photoshop was around to help.

07 College Mountain c1943 color Full B640
Colorized and Printed Version of Miller’s Real Photo Postcard, c. 1943

Next Sunday I’m going to post some images of an alabaster art shop and a very short-lived Catholic church.

If you want to reach me directly, my email is mcneil0115@comcast.net

Scroll down to the bottom of the page can click the “autos” tag to see other posts that reference early automobiles.



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